Ep. 112 Transcription

Disclaimer: This is transcribed using AI. Expect (funny) errors. 

Mindy Peterson: [00:00:00] I’m Mindy Peterson, and this is Enhance Life with Music, a holistic look at the power of music in our everyday lives. My guest today is a return guest. Dr. Nina Kraus is a neuroscientist who has done path-breaking research for more than 30 years on the interplay of sound in the brain. Dr. Kraus is Professor of Neurobiology, Communication Sciences, and Otolaryngology at Northwestern University. She uses the principles of neuroscience to improve human communication and advocate for best practices in education, health and social policy. She most recently has done this through authoring her first book. It’s hot off the press it released today, and the book shows how our processing of sound changes the brain. Welcome back to Enhance Life with Music, Nina!

Dr. Nina Kraus: [00:00:52] Oh, I’m so glad to talk to you again.

Mindy Peterson: [00:00:54] Well, it’s so exciting that your book released today. I thought that releasing a book into the world must feel like either bringing a child into the world or putting a child out into the world at age 18. Like when you drop them off at college and you’re like, I’ve done my best. Here they are now. You’re a parent. Does releasing a book feel like either of those experiences to you?

Dr. Nina Kraus: [00:01:16] Well, not really, but I can certainly say that this is I have three kids, so having babies is something I’ve experienced and I have never experienced releasing a book and I can tell you that I’m very excited and it feels great. But I don’t really make a direct connection other than the fact that my kids and their best beloveds have been a huge part of putting this book together for me. They have all read bits and pieces and various early drafts, and mostly they have been patient with me as I incessantly have talked about the book for the last, you know, two years or so. And, you know, they’ve just been full of ideas and advice and encouragement. So in that way, there is a tremendous family connection. And of course, I have dedicated the book to my family.

Mindy Peterson: [00:02:16] Well, the title of your book is Of Sound Mind: how our brain constructs a meaningful sonic world. I was fortunate to be able to read an advance copy. I loved it. It was fascinating and enlightening, and there were so many chapters I could do an entire episode on because you really cover a lot of ground, a wide spectrum of topics related to sound and the brain, and music features prominently in a lot of them. One of the things that I have always appreciated about your research that I’ve been able to read is your ability to make it practical and applicable for us non-scientists. And when I was reading your book, it really caught my attention. That story that you told about your mom’s response to some of your early research on chinchillas. Can you just tell us that story and how it influenced your approach to research?

Dr. Nina Kraus: [00:03:05] Sure. Sure, I’d love to. The book is full of personal stories and anecdotes because, you know, in all the years I’ve been working on sound in the brain, I’ve been a person and and science is done by people, and it is a hugely human endeavor that sometimes we we lose track of. But in fact, there is this back and forth that happens with our lives and what we do. So let me tell you about the back and forth with my mommy, la mama, I started out. Well, let me really back up and say that I grew up in a household where more than one language was spoken. My mom was a pianist. I thought sound was important clearly, somehow. I went to college and majored in comparative literature, and then I took some biology and I just loved it. And finally, it was introduced to a book by Lindbergh. Eric Lindbergh called the Biological Foundations of Language and I thought, Oh, you can put these things together, how wonderful. And so I began studying sound in the brain through neuroscience and auditory physiology. I worked first with Peter Dallas, and we were studying two tone suppression in the auditory nerve of the chinchilla at that time.

Dr. Nina Kraus: [00:04:25] And, you know, I was completely into it, and I was explaining to my mom what I was studying and and I realized really clearly that there were maybe 16 people in the world that I could really get in to the weeds with on tone suppression. And it wasn’t going to be my mom, and I just I had this realization that if I couldn’t explain to my mom how I was spending my time, I didn’t want to be doing that. So, so that was that was a real grounding moment and one that I have just felt so comfortable with throughout my career. And from there, I really still was recording the electrical activity of single neurons, but I could see firsthand the neural correlates of auditory learning. And I think, you know, in one form or another, the work that I have done and done always with my colleagues at brain vaults. You know, it has something to do with learning through sound auditory learning.

Mindy Peterson: [00:05:36] Mm hmm. The quote in your book that kind of caught my attention after you had that conversation with your mom. As you write, I realized the science I do needs to be explicitly grounded in the lived world. And I’m not a scientist and I find your work fascinating, and I just really appreciate how you’re able to put it in layperson’s terms and make it meaningful and applicable to us laypeople. Your book is about sound, what our brains do with it, and what that does to us, and that’s sort of how you came up with this title. The sound mind. One of the topics in the book is how music has a profound effect on our brains, ability to process sound and why musicians have measurably better sound minds for the long term. Tell us just starting out what your definition of musician is for purposes of your book,

Dr. Nina Kraus: [00:06:28] For the purposes of my book, and really for most of the research that we’ve done. Typically, I mean, someone who regularly plays a musical instrument and yes, singing counts. Ok, so this is just somebody like me who will just regularly over years. You can start and stop. You have really spent some time engaging with an instrument, you know, a couple of times a week on a regular basis for, you know, 20 minutes a day.

Mindy Peterson: [00:06:55] Sure. Tell us, what are some of the top advantages that you see in musicians defined this way when it comes to their processing of sound and what that does to their brain capabilities?

Dr. Nina Kraus: [00:07:08] Well, when you engage with sound and you engage with it deeply, you engage the sound mind and the sound mind is vast and is very much engaging. What we know about the sound, how we pay attention to it, how we remember it, how we feel about it and how we move with it, how the sound interacts with the information we’re getting from our other senses. So playing music is a workout for your brain, and it really does hone the sound mind to the point that, you know, we measure sound processing in the brain at brain volts, and we can see how different life experiences, how our life and sound changes, the way in which sound is processed by sound experts.

Mindy Peterson: [00:08:02] And when you mentioned brain volts, I’ll just clarify to listeners that that’s your the name of your lab there at Northwestern University, and it’s a phenomenal resource for anyone, whether you’re a scientist or not. It’s a wonderful website. There will be a link in the show notes to it, but just tons and tons of information on there about everything related to sound processing in the brain. You mentioned how music engages the whole brain, and in your book you say music is the jackpot because it does engage the sensing, brain thinking, moving, feeling. And you talk about to how the strings that are developed are not just musical, but they they do transfer to other activities. One of them that you talk about quite a bit is speech. Talk to us about the strength that’s developed in musicians with that sound processing and the brain and how that transfers to speech.

Dr. Nina Kraus: [00:08:55] So the way I built the book is to first start talking about sound. And you know, the first section of it is about how how sound works. So, you know, what do we know about sound and how is it processed by the brain? And then the second part of the book are actually most of the book is about our sonic selves. What’s important to know is that what is fundamental to sound turns out to be fundamental to many activities that engage or involve sound, for example, language. So if you strengthen certain ways of making sense of sound through your music, playing it is going to affect how you hear all kinds of sounds. All sounds, including those very, very important sounds that are a part of how we communicate with each other through language.

Mindy Peterson: [00:09:48] You talk about how music is arguably one of the best ways to foster cognitive strengths, including attention, working memory, creativity and definitely. Those transfer to speech, I was really fascinated by the overlap between so many different areas like speech, language, rhythm. For example, you talk about hearing speech and noise, and we we talked about this a little bit. The last time I got to have you on the show here and I’ll put a link in the show notes to that. I found it really fascinating what you had to say in this book about rhythm and how the rhythm of speech allows us to fill in the gaps in noise when we’re trying to hear speech and noise and how musicians are especially good at that because of their experience with rhythm. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

Dr. Nina Kraus: [00:10:42] Yeah. Sure, sure. So how is sound processing enhanced by making music? So, you know, on the one hand, there are ingredients in sound, just as there are ingredients in any visual object. You know, a visual object has color and texture and form and sound, of course, has pitch timing, timbre, rhythm. What we can do, and one of the metaphors that I use throughout the book is to be really thinking about these ingredients of sound outside the head and then how they are processed individually and together inside the head. And I use the metaphor of a mixing board where the brain is bringing in bits and pieces of sonic information and different aspects of sound processing are enhanced or diminished based on our lives in sound. So if you are someone who is playing a musical instrument, we find that musicians have very strong processing of harmonics and of certain aspects of timing. And of course, harmonics are very important in determining one speech sound from another sound. So that’s going to help us and quiet or add noise. And of course, there is rhythm and rhythm is multidimensional. It’s wonderful to do science because the science kind of keeps you honest and you learn what misconceptions you have. You know, I thought that if you were good at one kind of rhythm task, you’d be good at another kind of rhythm task. But it turns out not to be the case. There’s a real big dichotomy between following the pulse or the beat of, say, a song and following a rhythmic pattern.

Dr. Nina Kraus: [00:12:32] What is interesting is that, you know, these rhythmic tasks have been studied physically by scientists who haven’t really put it that much together with music. And you know, to me, I certainly write about this in the book. I can liken the rhythmic pulse following the pulse with the time signature in music, you know, is it a waltz? Is it a march? Where is the one? Where is the emphasis? And also the rhythmic pattern is denoted by the note values and rests. And I’ve actually I’ve just written a short piece, an editorial in the hearing journal. If anybody’s interested in in that, maybe you can put that link up. Yeah, that speaks about using rhythm therapeutically and digital programs to help, you know, as an adjunct to various forms of music, training and therapy. But the fact is that we have rhythms that are occurring at slow time scales so very, very quickly, microsecond timing and then over longer time scales over a measure or two or three over a sentence. And absolutely key to all of this and where my thinking comes in is that there are biological rhythms that are happening at these very fast and slower time scales. And we can measure all of this in individual people and also see what their strengths and weaknesses are in terms of, for example, hearing, speech and noise. And it really turns out that the rhythm of speech, especially over these longer time scales, helps us fill in the gaps in noise. Yeah.

Mindy Peterson: [00:14:17] Well, that’s especially fascinating for me because my family tends to not have very great hearing. My dad doesn’t have great hearing. All of us kids do not have great hearing. Our spouses remind us of that all the time. But I thought, Boy, I’m really going to be thinking about that rhythm of speech the next time I’m in a loud restaurant or in a crowded room. And I’m, you know, really trying to pay attention to the person who’s talking to me, just pay attention to how the rhythm of the speech does kind of help us pick out the important pieces. And one thing you talked about in your book, too, is how musicians are really good at blocking out the irrelevant pieces of noise and what you had to say. You in the book about the connection between rhythm and what we might think of being unrelated skills like reading and writing, that’s really fascinating to that connection between rhythm and reading and writing. And for listeners who want more information on that, I did get into that a little bit with dr Anita Colin, so I’ll link to that episode.

Mindy Peterson: [00:15:20] She discusses that a bit in her book, too. One of the things that you talk about in the book over and over is the benefit musicians have. But while listening to music has many benefits, you see the most benefit in terms of sound processing and the benefits of music with people who actually play music and you make the comparison of you’re not going to get physically fit watching sports. And while there’s benefits to listening to music, you really going to get the most benefit by actively engaging with making music. That’s where you get the training and the repetition and the practice for long lasting brain changes in sound processing. Talk to us about some of the research that you talk about in your book that I thought was so wonderful and fascinating about how these changes to the brain are long lasting. You can stop making music for periods of time, even decades, and you still reap those benefits of having been a musician at some point in your time, and you can pick those benefits back up when you begin making music again. Talk to us about that.

Dr. Nina Kraus: [00:16:27] Yeah, music works the way so many aspects of our experiences in biological systems work in that we change throughout our lives based on our genetics to some extent, but very much how we spend our time. And so, you know, and this is a point that I really make in the book, the responsibility that we have for how we spend our own time and how we spend, how we encourage our children and our society to be spending time because it actually forms us from a biological standpoint, we can really see that what we do very much shapes who we are and that this is an ongoing process. So if you have spent a number of years playing a musical instrument as a child and you know, often when I when I get to talk to audiences, I ask people to raise their hand, who has taken music at some lessons, at some time in their lives or has studied an instrument. And almost everyone raises their hands very encouragingly. And then I ask, Well, you know how many of you are still playing actively? And you know, it’s not often that many, depending on the audience. The fact is, though, that what you have done in the past has a legacy and the experience that you have had learning about sound to meaning connections and the way you have engaged your sound mind early on provides the scaffolding that you carry your entire life.

Dr. Nina Kraus: [00:18:04] For example, we find that older adults who have had music training in childhood so decades before we get them in the lab, we find that people who have played musical instruments in the past have stronger sound processing in the brain. Of these particular details that characterize the musician brain. You know, the timing, the harmonics, the ability to hear a noise, you know, these aspects of sound processing that in fact, are so important for communication? You know, we know that as we get older, one of the most common complaints is difficulty. Hearing in noise and hearing a noise is difficult at any age for anyone. But playing a musical instrument really strengthens from a biological standpoint that sound processing in the brain in a way that you know we can see objectively. We can understand what it is, and we see that it has relevance to people’s everyday life in terms of probably, you know, one of the most important things we do, which is our communication with each other. Hmm.

Mindy Peterson: [00:19:10] Well, in your book, you say, if I had five minutes to tell teachers, parents, health care workers and anyone who would like to listen to me about the biological evidence that supports the benefits of music education, I would say to I got to read it, but tell listeners what you have to say, what what your reasons are for the benefits of music education?

Dr. Nina Kraus: [00:19:31] Well, I so believe from a biological standpoint, you know, here I am. I’m really speaking as a scientist that the the changes that happen in how we process sound and the way in which that influences all of our learning in life is something that we should make as a fundamental part of any child’s education. Having everyone have a music education, just like any other subject, is certainly part of what I believe will make us individually and collectively strong because we want to be able to learn well and we want to be able to engage well with the world. We also know that, you know, we can communicate across languages and cultures through music. Music connects us. Sound connects us. Very basically. But, you know, music really connects us in marvelous ways. And it is so important to be able to understand other people and understand other worlds. Music education really strengthens that ability. Mm-hmm.

Mindy Peterson: [00:20:47] Well, you make it so clear in your book that making music shapes, brain networks and those skills and brain activity that’s improved by making music is a lot of the the same skills that improve language and reading and other academic skills. And one thing I liked about what you talked about in this section of if I had five minutes, what would I say? You talk about the economics and one the reason I like that is we don’t really think about that. But you talk about the economics of how music education can help kids connect. It can help kids academically. It can help kids close that achievement gap between rich and poor kids at a fraction of the cost of medication and incarceration. And again, I thought that was a great example of the practicality of the research that you’re doing. One final thing, too, that I liked about that section is how you said, in its simplest form, music education doesn’t have to be a fancy expensive proposition. It can be a child’s voice, you know, and its most simple form, that’s all we need is the voice. Well, tell us before we close things out, some of the sound mind choices that you chose to make for yourself and for your family when they were younger, or that you’ve seen other people make and that listeners may want to consider.

Dr. Nina Kraus: [00:22:07] Well, I think one of the first things is to learn, to be aware and to recognize the importance of sound because it really is not a very recognized sense and there is so much going on. So in terms of choices I’ve made in my own life is learning languages, having my children learn languages that they all had to play a musical instrument, spending time where you can hear the details of sound, the scrumptious, delicious, glorious sounds of nature. And there’s a lot in the book about bird songs and nature sounds in general and how the sonic world influences not only humans, but every other living creature, including not only animals, but also plants. So these are important decisions, and the other is we’re so cavalier about noise. I recently went to New York to see my kids, and first of all, the traveling in many ways was nicer than I had experienced it because there were fewer flights and fewer people. But just think about, you know, this is something that everybody encounters when they travel. Airports are noisy places, inherently. I mean, there are certain things you have to have. You have to have the conveyor belts and the jet engines. But do we need to have the trucks that are carrying people, you know, the carts back and forth from one gate to the other? You know, they go beep, beep, beep, beep beep.

Dr. Nina Kraus: [00:23:37] You know, I have experienced in Scandinavian countries the same facility with just a bicycle bell, and they would use it when necessary. Ding, ding, ding. And you know, do we need to be listening to CNN? Do we need to, you know, at the gate, I have to listen to this kid playing his video game, you know, and people are just aren’t aware of these things. And LaGuardia, they’ve just built a fancy new terminal and was sitting there ready to board my flight, and I could hear there was another flight that was boarding three gates down. And every time the boarding pass scanned the little scanner, it went Beep beep. Baby, baby, baby, you know. So that happened. You know what? 200 passengers and I mean the poor people. I mean, you know who are on top of this and this happens in every grocery store. We’re just we’re just not aware. And these are things that really aren’t necessary. These can be modified changed, but people aren’t aware. And so one of the things that I’ve really tried to do throughout the book is to help us all recognize how prevalent sound is and. How able we are to make choices for our own personal sonic lives and for our sonic world.

Mindy Peterson: [00:25:09] Yes, well, you do such a great job in the book of doing just that and I highly recommend it. There, of course, will be links in the show notes so listeners can get their hands on your book, which is available today. Well, I ask all my guests to close out our conversation with a musical, ending a coda by sharing a song or story about a moment that music enhanced your life. Tell us about the song that you’re going to be sharing with us today.

Dr. Nina Kraus: [00:25:36] Sure, sure. So I love to make music, and I’m not especially good, but I make music with great joy. I’m actually married to a musician, so I am fortunate to get really fabulous music making all the time around me. But one of the, well, one of the languages I speak is is harmony. So when I was a little girl, you know my mom would and dad they would sing songs, you know, songs from the old country, mostly alpine songs from the mountains, and they would sing harmony with each other. And I don’t understand how I do it, but I can do it. It’s so fun for me to listen and to figure out where I want to be with my voice. So what you’re going to be hearing is this was not not. I think we rehearsed this once. So, you know, this is really the kind of fun music that my husband and I make. He was singing a song called Wheels by the Flying Burrito Brothers, and we’re singing Harmony. But I I chose it for this show because singing harmony to me is emblematic of the sound mind. You know, the sound mind is vast, and it includes how we think and feel and hear and engage our other senses. And when you sing harmony with someone, you are listening to what they are doing and you are adjusting your own motor movements based on what you’re hearing and you’re looking at each other and you’re moving with each other. And, you know, sound enables us to connect in this reciprocal fashion. Sound is intangible. It’s dynamic. It is this sense, this fabulous sense that makes us who we are in terms of our relationships with people and singing harmony is is just one way of being with another person through sound.

Transcribed by Sonix.ai